MANUEL BENSON knows what it takes to beat the Championship bullies because he has already done it in BASKETBALL.
Burnley‘s new Belgian winger was given a warm welcome to English football by Watford’s Hassane Kamara hacking him down three times in the opening 10 minutes of his debut at Vicarage Road.
Manuel Benson is working on beating the Championship bully boys
Burnley ace Manuel Benson has been a target for some meaty challenges
And ever since he has been a constant target for opponents who keep trying to take lumps out of him in a bid to stop his attacking prowess.
But Benson, 25, signed from Royal Antwerp, knows it comes with the territory of playing in the second tier — where defenders are safe from VAR scrutiny and referees let a lot more tackles go than they do in the Premier League or Europe.
However the Belgian insists he must be smart like he is with the brown ball.
He said: “I love basketball and enjoy playing with friends. I’m not the tallest or most powerful on court and, just like here in the Championship, they keep fouling me.
“I learned to be smarter and get some distance because they’re all so tall. I found ways around it — and will do exactly the same in football.”
Benson is lucky to have two fantastic tutors in how to beat the bully boys.
His Clarets boss Vincent Kompany was of course a world-class centre-half at Manchester City who would lick his lips at the prospect of giving a player of Benson’s size some rough-house treatment.
And assistant-manager Craig Bellamy was also an attacking player that was not the biggest but certainly made a living out of out-foxing centre-halves.
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The pair have even put on training games where they have instructed defenders to mete out some tough treatment to the Belgian.
Benson said: “We’ve been working on it because it’s something I must adapt to.
“It’s tough because there is no VAR so everything is based on the referee’s decision. It’s something that comes with football and I must learn to be smarter.
“Craig Bellamy has been giving me a lot of help. He has told me to be one step ahead of the defenders and don’t let them get even close to making the tackle.
“You can leave space between you and the defender but, because of the way I play, I sometimes like to be close to the defender so you just have to accept this is part of football.
“We’ve been working hard on it in training and some of the guys have been fouling me. With lots of practice, I can implement what I learn in both training and games.
“In that first game at Watford I thought surely it’ll ease off but it didn’t happen. I got distracted a little because of it but each week and game that passes, I’m getting smarter.”
Benson admits that some of the tackles he sees are “scary” and “dangerous”.
He said: “Most times defenders don’t want to go for a foul. They’re just going for the ball and trying to be smart. But as an attacking player, you always feel more at a disadvantage because you move a little bit faster and when the challenge comes in, it can be quite scary sometimes. It can be dangerous.
“Because we tend to be quicker on balls and move to situations when the challenge comes in, we must think sometimes to hold a bit in.
Manuel Benson is enjoying life at Burnley since moving from Royal Antwerp
Manuel Benson with our man Justin Allen at Burnley’s training ground
“Maybe, because there is no VAR, defenders can afford to be a bit more ruthless.
“I don’t want to complain though. I’ll keep working on being smarter and hopefully the referees will eventually see the clear fouls.”
But the fact that having no VAR in the Championship is not to Benson’s advantage, he is glad that the EFL have not introduced it.
He said: “For me, it’s not necessary because I like the atmosphere it brings to the stadium. It’s better for the game that decisions can be made in a split second.
“I’m more old-school and like how football used to be. I’m not waving my hands about complaining. I must adapt.”
Benson revealed he religiously watched Match of the Day back home and Burnley were a team he tuned into because ex-Belgium international Steve Defour used to strut his stuff at Turf Moor.
Although, the winger concedes, he probably would not have joined the club under former boss Sean Dyche — must preferring the dominant possession-based game that Kompany has implemented at the club.
He said: “There were too many long balls and for me that’s not really football. It’s not something I’d enjoy.
“When I was at Antwerp, it was all about going deep and playing the long ball. I had to adapt to that but couldn’t reach my best level.”
The winger caught Kompany’s eye when they played against each other in 2019. The City legend was in the last season of his playing career for Anderlecht and Benson came on as a 55th-minute sub for Antwerp in a 0-0 draw.
And when Kompany was managing Antwerp last season, Benson caught his eye again with two good performances.
The Burnley ace said: “I hurt him a few times but they also did beat us in one of the games. It’s great when someone like him remembers you and when he called me to come here my mind was made up.
“First, Vincent was someone I would watch play for the national team and City. Everyone knows he was a world-class defender. Also he is Belgian and I’ve admired his transition to a coach.
“He’s a young manager who, because he hasn’t been out of playing for so long, still has a strong feeling for the game. Although he is the manager, he communicates calmly and it never feels as though when he speaks that it’s coming from so high up. It all feels like he is level with us and that’s really nice.
“This is an important time in my career. I want to progress. I want to play in the Premier League and still have ambitions to play for Belgium, even if it takes until I am 32 to get there!”
Benson has revealed that apart from Turf Moor, the only place he has visited so far in Burnley is Tesco.
He said: “I’ve been to Manchester, which is nice, and in Burnley only Tesco. I haven’t got a car at the moment so that has made travelling around a bit more difficult but I am just about to move into a place and my mum and fiancee will be joining me soon. So hopefully I can see more soon.”